Swadeshi and Boycott: The Extremist Politics

The phase between 1885-1905 is known as the period of the moderates. In 1905 Lord Curzon, the then Governor general announced the partition of Bengal. The province of Bengal at that time comprised of the present states of West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand, Orissa and Assam.

It also included the present country of Bangladesh, it was indeed a very large administrative unit. However the way the partition was done clearly showed the divisive policies of the British.

Firstly, it was on the lines of religion, where the areas where Hindus were in a majority, were separated from Muslim majority areas. Moreover the urban bases of the resurgent intelligentsia (English educated upper caste Indian), were separated from the mainly cultivating areas, (most significantly the jute producing areas), was also an attempt to reduce the significance of Calcutta where the intelligentia from all over Bengal met and inspired each other.

There were widespread protests following this announcement. Initially the protest was on the lines of the ‘prayer and petition’ tactics of the moderates whereby petitions and memoranda were addressed to the colonial government, and speeches, public meetings and press campaigns were held. This was an attempt to influence the public opinion in India and in England. In spite of these attempts the partition of Bengal was announced in July 1905.

As soon as the final announcement was made Bengal broke out in protest. Protest meetings were held all over Bengal and most significantly not only in Calcutta but also in the smaller towns in the interiors of Bengal e.g. Dinajpur, Pabna, Faridpur, Dacca, Barisal, etc. The decision to ‘boycott’ British goods was taken up for the first time in one of these meetings.

Formal proclamation of the Swadeshi movement was made on August 7, 1905 with the passing of the ‘Boycott’ resolution in a meeting at the Calcutta townhall which brought about the unification of the hitherto dispersed leadership. On the day the partition was put into effect i.e. October 16, 1905, a hartal was called in Calcutta and a day of mourning was declared. People fasted and no fire was lit in the cooking hearth.

People paraded the streets singing Bande Mataram. The people of Bengal tied rakhis on each others’ wrist as a symbol of solidarity. This peculiar form of mass protest of ‘swadeshi and boycott’ attained popularity among the new members of the Congress who were more impatient than the moderates to see a positive response to their efforts. Lokmanya Tilak took the message of swadeshi and the boycott of foreign goods to Bombay and Pune; Ajit Singh and Lajpat Rai to Punjab and other parts of Northan India: Syed Haider Raza to Delhi and Chidambaram Pillai to Madras presidency which was also motivated by Bipin Chandra Pal’s extensive lecture tours.

The INC formally took up the swadeshi call in its Benaras session of 1905 presided over by GK Gokhale. Although the Congress supported the swadeshi movement in Bengal it did not envisage the further intensification of the movement throughout India or the extension of the cause to total independence. The extremist leadership of Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai, Aurobindo Ghosh, etc wanted just that. This extremist pressure promoted Dada Bhai Naoroji in his presidential address in Calcutta session of the Congress to say that the ultimate goal of the INC was ‘self-government or swaraj’.

The contribution of the swadeshi movement was the initiation of new forms of protest. Some of these terms of protest anticipated many of the methods adopted by Mahatma Gandhi during his satyagraha. These new forms of protest were mass meetings, processions, boycott of foreign goods (later extended to boycott of government schools, colleges, courts, titles and government services), and organization of strikes, burning of foreign goods in public, picketing of shops selling foreign goods.

Attempts were made to achieve mass mobilization and ‘samitis’ were formed which penetrated deep into the interiors of Bengal spreading the swadeshi message. For the first time in the national movement there was the use of traditional and popular festivals to reach the people. The Ganapati and Shivaji festivals in Maharashtra were employed by Tilak to draw the masses to the movement and educate them about it.

In Bengal the use of swadeshi songs was made to inspire the people. The popular theatre form known as jatra was also used to spread nationalist feeling. This movement was accompanied by a great out-burst of cultural activities.

Finally the colonial government was compelled to withdraw the partition in the form in which they had envisaged it. However, they did try to decrease the importance of Calcutta and hence the intellectuals of Bengal by shifting the capital to Delhi in 1911.